Friday, July 29, 2005

Weekly BlogScan: Watching the Supremes

When I was in grade school, my friends and I barely knew the Supreme Court of the United States existed. That was a topic for high-school civics, or maybe eighth-grade—we were too interested in the Man from Uncle and the half-man from Vulcan to care who sat on the bench in the highest court of the land.

I suspect that's still true for grade-school kids. But I believe my own parents would have had equal difficulty in naming the Chief Justice of that pre-Brown v. Board of Education era. (Even now, you know the name Earl Warren—would you know who Fred Vinson was?) I doubt the same could be said of many sixth-graders' folks today. Not in an age when figurines of the SCOTUS justices are offered on eBay.

Earlier this month, Jeralyn Merritt of TalkLeft met with Mark Noonan of Blogs for Bush on MSNBC's Connected Coast to Coast to discuss the best choices for Justice Sandra Day O'Connors' replacement. (O'Connors had just announced her plans for retirement.) While they were polite on-screen, their comments on-line are a better reflection of the entrenched positions:
TalkLeft: "PFAW lists these as the rights that may be in jeopardy if a consensus candidate is not selected: Privacy Rights, Civil Rights and Discrimination, Church-State Separation, Environmental Protection, Workers' Rights and Consumer Protection, Campaign Finance Reform."

Blogs for Bush: "This, in the end, isn't about Roberts or Bush judicial nominations; it is about defending our system of government from leftwing attempts to destroy it."

These lines are scratched pretty deep in the sand. But why should the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice be a partisan issue at all? Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice clarifies the motivations of both left- and right-leaning commenters with a look at the recent nuanced Ten Commandments decision. Joe points out that the age and current makeup of the court potentially make President Bush "one of the most influential Presidents in history" as he replaces justices who retire (or expire).
A new majority, voting in the wake of several Supreme Court vacancies and new appointments, may see things a bit differently. That's why both the right and left are gearing up for a no-holds-barred political donnybrook in which it's not entirely unlikely that the "nuclear option" on judicial filibusters comes back from the compromise grave.

Since the Supreme Court was established in 1789, 27 of the 150 people nominated to sit as a justice on the Supreme Court—18 percent—have failed to reach Senate confirmation. The first nominee to be rejected by the Senate was John Rutledge in 1795.

It's not enough, however, to have an overt battle over a nominee—some bloggers insist on conspiracy, as well. David Sirota writes in his Sirotablog that Karl Rove has sinister plans for a Supreme Court "victory."
Karl Rove will have Bush put up one crazy, wild-eyed conservative lunatic in the John Ashcroft mold, and one hard-right winger who seems "moderate" compared to the crazy... the lunatic goes down to defeat, but the hard-right winger gets through, and Bush replaces the lunatic with another hard-right winger as a "compromise."

Writing at The Volokh Conspiracy (an affiliate of, Jim Lindgren asks an important question: "Will the Lobbies Really Oppose Roberts?" Whatever lobbyists may do, the Senators will take actions on their own responsibility.
As for the Senate committee hearings, it is too early to tell, but the Senators' more cautious attack on Roberts is so far shaping up to be three-fold: (1) attack the refusal to release additional internal Roberts memos from later presidential administrations (as they did with Estrada), (2) attack Roberts' refusal to answer most questions about past Supreme Court cases, and (3) assert that (or at least question whether) Roberts is "outside the mainstream" or "outside the conservative mainstream" on important issues.

Should bloggers care? I mean, aside from whatever level of focus you have on Washington, D.C., should you worry about who is confirmed to the court? According to digg, you should; the blog cites Steve Jobs' vow to take his suit against Apple "insider" blogs to the Supreme Court—a court that currently is willing to decide against a strict application of physical property rights. Perhaps we should be less worried about Roe v. Wade, and a lot more concerned with Kelo v. City of New London!

Once-occult processes of government have been opened to scrutiny and the pressure exerted by the Bandar-Log of polls, blogs, editorials, and other popular commentary. The end result, at least as far as the Supreme Court is concerned, is yet to be determined. But we are certainly (as in the Chinese curse) living in interesting times.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Help Is on The Web: O'Reilly Announces Annoyances Web Site

O'Reilly Media introduced the "Annoyances" book series to provide pinpoint, real-world help for consumers suffering the slings and arrows of computing. In an easy-to-read format, each book delivers solutions: quick fixes, tips and advice, pointers to problem-solving utilities, deep background on key technologies, and more, all aimed at saving your sanity and improving your productivity.

Viruses and worms, spam and bugs, cranky software, hardware that won't work, online identity thieves, lousy documentation and customer support—these are just a few of the computing challenges consumers face every day. Mix in new technology, new products, and new software, and you've got even bigger headaches. To provide some serious relief, O'Reilly has launched

The site is designed with three key areas where visitors can find expert help and amusing commentary. On the "Expert's Blogs," authors can share their insight and answer your questions. The "Daily Fix" will provide tips, tricks, and fixes for a variety of computing woes, culled from the popular "Annoyances" series. And "Robert's Rants" are the musings of O'Reilly's in-house curmudgeon, and Executive Editor, Robert Luhn. To launch the new site, O'Reilly and Onfolio are offering a free download of RSS reader 2.0, so visitors can get daily fixes and tips delivered right to their desktops.

Onfolio RSS Reader—Free Software
Visitors to can not only learn about RSS technology—how it works, and how it can deliver specific, valuable, and useful content—but they will also be able to download a free, fully-working copy of the Onfolio 2.0 RSS reader.

Daily Fix
Every day, a new technology annoyance is featured in this section with expert fixes and tips from the authors of the Annoyances series. You'll find help on using the Internet, Microsoft Office applications from Word to Excel, the Mac, home networking, computer privacy, and more. If you've read every Annoyance volume cover-to-cover, you might not find anything new here. But which of us has done that?
The Annoyance: Virtually every online directory is full of ads hawking background searches, criminal record checks, even photos of my house! Can they really do this?

The Fix: First, run a search on your name and number to find out if your info is even in the site’s database... To opt out of PeopleData, for example, you send an email to, listing your name, address, phone number, and date of birth. To remove yourself from some (but not all) searches on US Search, you’ll need to mail a letter to:

Opt-Out Program
600 Corporate Pointe, Suite 220
Culver City, CA 90230

Expert's Blogs
The tips in this section range from totally serious, productivity-focused items to methods for wasting... um, creatively using time.
Kill Some Time: Now you can amaze your friends (and maybe even your spouse), by designing your own Google logo...
—Steve Bass, PC Annoyances Second Edition

The experts who blog here are the authors of the Annoyances books, including a core group of award-winning technology writers, computer journalism pros, and highly successful, prolific authors:
  • Steve Bass: Personal computing authority, and long-time "PC World" columnist, Steve is the author of PC Annoyances
  • Guy Hart Davis: Computing expert and author of over 30 computer books, Guy has penned such classics as Word Annoyances and the forthcoming Office Annoyances
  • Dan Tynan: Internet privacy and security expert, a former PC World editor, and an award-winning technology writer with nearly twenty years of experience
  • Preston Gralla: Internet and Windows guru, Preston is the founding managing editor of PC Week, founding editor of PC/Computing, and author of Internet Annoyances and PC Pest Control
  • Phil Mitchell: MS Access whiz and instructor, Phil is also a software developer focusing on data modeling and developing database applications

Robert's Rant
O'Reilly's in-house curmudgeon and executive editor, Robert Luhn, takes an irreverent view of computer annoyances—after all, he has been annoyed since birth. A former Editor in Chief of Computer Currents and Executive Editor at CNET, he's spent way too many years fixing computers, formatting hard drives, and wishing for a time machine ride back to 1887.
I've been annoyed as long as I can remember. First, I was annoyed by the whole crib/diaper rash thing. Later, I was irked by girls who deconstructed my smooth moves way too easily. As I grew like a young sapling in spring, I found my inner curmudgeon and discovered a lot of things annoyed me, from Congress to Saran Wrap...
—Robert's Rants, July 28, 2005

This is a serious resource for the Web User. Annoyances Central will have something to lighten your load and lift your spirits. Why munch antacids? You could subscribe to this site instead, and get relief delivered daily!

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

In the Midst of Life...


I've known Art for nearly as long as I've known my spouse. We were close for a while, then remote pen-pals for a while, then close again. I was there when he married his second wife, Glenna. I sent a card from Africa when their only child died at the age of three.

A few years ago, Art moved to a town not an hour away from where I live, and we revived our close friendship. We went dancing together, the four of us. We celebrated Art's promotion, we toured wine country together. Scarcely a week went by that we didn't discuss some new item, sometimes by eMail, sometimes at a cafe midway between our two towns. We were contemplating a trip to Argentina, barely in the planning stages.

Then last Friday, I got a call from Glenna at the hospital. Art had had a seizure of some kind. Before I could get there to see him, he was dead. Passed away, gone from life.

Art was four years younger than I am.

We spent the weekend helping Glenna try to cope with her loss, so I had little time to contemplate mine. But Monday came, and I couldn't get out of bed. For the first time in years, I slept until noon. I tried to throw myself into work, but the drive just wasn't there.

Tuesday was worse.

This morning I woke at my normal time, to a wet pillow. I vaguely remember dreaming about Art, and they weren't sad dreams, but I still cried in my sleep. Perhaps I'm getting past my loss. Maybe I've accepted Art's death enough to confront my own selfish, scared reaction. That might have been me, lying cold on that gurney, wet with unfelt tears.

Perhaps my "grief" is mostly comprised of that fear, that shock at the suddenness of loss. I want it to be more than that, for my tears (even in sleep) to rise from my heart, not from the cold knot in my gut.

Mostly, I want Art back. I want to finish the eMail conversation we were in the middle of, I want to split another antipasto platter, I want to have the shared prospect, however distant, of a long-dreamed trip to the Rio de la Plata.

It won't happen, not ever. The finality of death is very much on my mind—if I seem curt or remote, this is why. Pardon it, please.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Rich Resource for Elegant Code: Perl Best Practices by Damian Conways


Program code, whether it's written in Perl or another language, can range from lucid to occult, depending on how intelligently the programmer documents it. But in Perl programming, according to Damian Conways' Perl Best Practices, lucid code means much more than judicious commenting. From the arcane (not padding values with leading zeroes to make them line up) to the esoteric (factoring out common affixes from alternations to avoid endless re-matching), these practices can help lift your Perl code from spaghetti to elegance.
Always code as if the guy who ends up maintaining your code will be a violent psychopath who knows where you live.
—Introduction to Perl Best Practices

Conway begins with a discussion of why programming style matters, and why it's important to make your style consistent and accessible. In this, he cites three goals for "best" code: robustness, efficiency and maintainability; and he gives plenty of examples to show the merit of each. He quotes Larry Wall, the originator of Perl, "We do not all have to write like Faulkner, or program like Dijkstra. I will gladly tell people what my programming style is, and I will even tell them where I think their own style is unclear or makes me jump through mental hoops. But I do this as a fellow programmer, not as the Perl god..."

Having cited the Perl god in support of his effort, Conway launches right into the practices themselves. He begins with "Code Layout" and "Naming Conventions" to show how top-down management of code can make the process easier, and open later stages of a programming project to lucidity. His simple suggestions (Never place two statements on the same line. Abbreviate only when the meaning remains unambiguous) are logical, and need little justification when each is taken alone. Together, these two chapters lay easy-to-understand foundations for Conway's dive into the abstrusities of Perl.

Quoting Arthur Norman ("Data is semi-animate... sort of like programmers."), Conway next discusses "Values and Expressions," where he points out some of the pitfalls of applying any style-law across the board without considering it fully. For example, he notes, blindly following a code-layout rule to align things vertically doesn't make sense if you add leading zeros to a values table to make them align. Perl takes the leading zeros to denote octal numbers, and your carefully-entered values become something quite different than you intended.

Chapter 5, "Variables," explores a robust (read: bug-resistant) way to code variables, whether you need to use package or punctuation variables, localization, or hash and array slicing. Conway includes plenty of code examples (for both good and bad code) to illustrate what he means. With the next chapter, "Control Structures," the book gets into more-obvious programming choices, exploring loops and if-else statements with an eye to making good decisions early in the programming process. ("Reject as many iterations as possible, as early as possible.")

It isn't until Chapter 7 that Conway addresses "Documentation," often the launching-point of other such texts. From such choices as what to put in the POD (Plain Old Documentation, the user text) and what to reserve for technical readers, Conway procedes to offer excellent suggestions to make documentation easier. Alluding to the pig's singing teacher, for example, he advises, "...don't put implementation details in the user documentation. It wastes your time, and annoys the user."

From there, Conway goes into the inner capabilities of Perl from the coder's perspective: Chapter 8 discusses the "Built-In Functions" of standard Perl code and those available from CPAN; Chapter 9 covers "Subroutines" with an eye to using them in efficient and maintainable ways; and Chapter 10 tells how to handle file "I/O" effectively. The same simple tips enliven the next chapters and explain pitfalls that lie in wait for the unwary: "References" (Chapter 11) shows how to avoid problems with symbolic and cyclic references that could lead to "memory leaks"; Chapter 12 gives guidelines for using "Regular Expressions," including the the issue of factoring alternations.
Any alternation of subpatterns can be expensive... Every alternative that has to be tried requires the regex engine to backtrack up the string and re-examine the same sequence of characters it has just rejected... nested backtracking can easily produce an exponential increase in the time the complex match requires.

The next five chapters cover programmer-designed interfaces and displays. "Error-Handling" (Chapter 13) explains why the way your code reacts to exceptions is an important part of the overall design; Chapter 14 discusses how to design a useful interface as a "Command-Line Processor". Chapters 15 and 16 cover how to create robust and efficient "Objects" and "Class Heirarchies" with little to no performance penalties, while Chapter 17 examines the most efficient ways to use object-oriented "Modules," including not only standard Perl modules, but also those found on CPAN.

In Chapter 18, Conway winds up the structured suggestions with the sine qua non for creating robust code, "Testing." Entire books have been written about the need to test code, and this chapter condenses the most useful tips into helpful guidelines. From "Write the test case first" ("probably the single best practice in all of software development..."), to "Write test cases that fail" ("Testing is not actually about ensuring correctness, it's about discovering mistakes..."), to "Never assume that a warning-free compilation implies correctness...", Conway's tips provide a roadmap for effectively testing your code.

After a chapter on "Miscellaneous" items, the book concludes by tying together the tips in two appendices. Appendix A excerpts the "top ten" techniques for optimizing your Perl coding in three categories: Essential Development Practices, Essential Coding Practices, and Essential Module Practices. Each "essential" is connected to the chapter where examples will be found. In Appendix B, every tip statement is listed in order, along with the item title associated with it in the book. This makes it easy to track back through the text. ("Where did I see that example about multi-contextual return values?")

Appendic C covers how to set up the optimum configuration for common editors like vim, vile, BBEdit and TextWrangler. The Appendix D lists recommended modules, subroutines, and utilities that will make the coding and testing process simpler, and the final appendix provides a bibliography. With the rich index, these "utilities" make the manual work as an excellent reference, as well as an initial guide.

As a beginning Perl programmer, I need all the help I can get. Damian Conways' Perl Best Practices is one of the most useful resources I've yet encountered in my quest to create elegant code.

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Results are in: Ethics in Blogging survey

Last May, I participated in a survey of bloggers designed to discover our concept of ethics and our practice of those principles. The surveyors, three undergraduate students at the School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore (Andy Koh, Alvin Lim, Ng Ee Soon), were able to survey over 1000 bloggers by eMail. After some time to analyze the results, they have published their findings online—in a blog, of course.

The Principles: The researchers were concerned with four general ethical issues: truth-telling, accountability, minimizing harm, and attribution.

These are expandable topics; truth-telling, for example, means the desire for fairness, equality and honesty, and "completeness" (telling the whole truth). Accountability covers honesty as well, especially in disclosing conflits of interest, as well as accepting the consequences for posting the contents of your blog. Minimizing the harm one's blog does to others involves respecting privacy and confidentiality, avoiding or controlling "flaming," and having consideration of other’s feelings, including other cultures and societal groups. Attribution brings in concerns about plagiarism and intellectual property rights, in addition to properly crediting one's sources.

The researchers had identified two distinct groups of bloggers to contact. Personal bloggers create an online diary or personal journal. Non-personal bloggers focus on specific topics and content, and their content is usually intended for a larger audience. "In addition to different types of content and intended audiences," the researchers believed, "these two types of bloggers are likely to have different perspectives on the functions and impact their blogs have, which may in turn influence their ethics in blogging."

The questions in the survey were designed to reveal this divide (if it existed), as well as to assess the extent to which the surveyed bloggers adhere to ethical principles defined by the group. (In fact, the survey did reveal a disparate approach to ethical concerns by personal versus non-personal bloggers.) In addition, the group wanted to determine if bloggers saw a need for an ethical code of blogging.

Participants were selected randomly from amongst pre-identified groups of blogs. "A purposive stratified sampling method that selected weblogs according to the distribution sizes of various weblog service providers was used, augmented by snowball sampling." Voluntary participation, and confidentiality of all information provided, may have increased the response of the 6,000-strong sample group—"1,224 completed surveys were used for analysis."

The Results: I can only pick some interesting items out of the report. Those who are interested in the complete findings should follow the link to read the entire paper.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest differences between personal and non-personal blogs came in the reason for blogging (Personal: "Express thoughts and feelings" and "Document one's life" were the major purposes; Non-personal: "Provide commentary" and "Provide info" were), the primary audience for the blog (Personal: "Do not have one" and "People known personally" were almost equal; Non-personal: it was "People not known personally"), and people blogged about (Personal: "Self"; Non-personal: "People not known personally" and "Do not blog about people" were almost equal). One category, the topics the blogger covers, seemed more like a by-product of defining whether a blog was personal or non-personal. (Personal: "Events in my life" was selected most often; Non-personal: "Government and politics" was.)

Overall, attribution was judged most important by both groups of bloggers, and accountability came in last.
... belief in the importance of attribution was paramount. This could be due to the nature of blogging, in which bloggers show readers links to other pages to illustrate a point or to share information. Attribution in blogging is quite different from that in traditional journalism in that, other than giving proper credit, it also serves a community-building function (Blood, 2002).

The last-place finish for accountability provoked some speculation by the authors.
First, there is less perceived social risk (i.e., diminished personal cost if interactions or relationships fail) and second, there is less social responsibility toward others than traditional face-to-face communication (Morahan-Martin & Schumacher, 2000; Turkle, 1995; Wallace, 1999; Walther, 1996). In a concrete example of this, Viégas (2004) found that most bloggers do not believe people can sue them for their weblog content.

That last line is significant, I think: most bloggers do not believe people can sue them for their weblog content. And while this is speculation from the survey authors, and was not directly covered in the survey questions, it is ominous in light of the other major finding of the survey: The majority of bloggers surveyed do not believe a "blogger's code of ethics" is needed.

The surveyors expected to find a difference here between non-personal bloggers, who "take a journalistic approach to blogging," and personal bloggers. To their surprise, there was no significant difference; " is estimated that no more than two dozen individuals in the US earn their living from blogging (Drezner and Farrell, 2004). For everyone else, blogging is just a hobby, so it seems unlikely that many people will have developed a sense of responsibility and a system of ethics comparable to journalists and other communication professionals."

Their final conclusion rather begs the question the authors set out to define: Do bloggers have a code of ethics, or does one need to be imposed from without?
In addition, the limited support from bloggers for a blogging code of ethics poses a serious problem for advocates of on-line social responsibility. If any inroads are to be made in terms of bloggers regulating themselves, consensus in the community must be developed.

Otherwise, as they point out in each discussion of an external code of ethics, such an other-imposed code is doomed to fail.

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Indescribably Delicious: Sci-Fi Channel's Tripping the Rift


In anticipation of the season two premiere of Tripping the Rift on Wednesday, July 27th, the Sci-Fi Channel is running episodes from Season One this week. If you missed this hilarious series the first time around (as I did), this is your chance to catch up.

Tripping the Rift tells the story of a goofy crew of misfits on the starship Jupiter 42. No Star Trek or Battlestar Gallactica seriousness here—this ship's nemesis is the Dark Clown conspiracy. Captain Chode, a squat purple blob with three eyes and prehensile dreadlocks, manages to survive from one adventure to the next with the help of his incredibly pneumatic sex-android science officer, Six, a sarcastic centaur-like (if centaurs were cows instead of horses) mechanic with three breasts named T'Nuk, and a fashion-conscious, terminally ironic, self-absorbed robot named Gus. The ship's computer, Bob, does all the real work of piloting the craft.

Chode is ill-equipped, mentally and temperamentally, for his tasks as captain. In fact, Chode seems suspiciously like the lizard teen-geek ensign Whip, in contributing next to nothing to the life of the ship. (In a recent episode, on the presumed death of Chode, Whip assumed the captain's chair, which perhaps explains the similarity.)

Like The Simpsons and Futurama, which it resembles in tone, Tripping the Rift uses these characters to poke genial fun at all kinds of things: beauty contests, political correctness, child stars, violence as entertainment, even science fiction itself. (Chode is bounced out of his seat by an abrupt stop of the ship, prompting him to grumble, "D'j'ever notice that captain's chairs never have seat belts? What's that about?")

The premise of the title is that Jupiter 42's crew don't belong in either of the hegemonies that adjoin "the Rift"; neither the Dark Clown-ruled worlds nor the conformist Confederation is a desirable place to live. The ship is thus doomed to travel the Rift, avoiding conflicts with either power. Given that the Dark Clowns are willing to do anything to trick Chode into their clutches, and the Confederation have a warrant out for his arrest, "tripping the rift" between them provides plenty of adventure.

If Chode's voice sounds familiar, it should be: Stephen Root (Dodgeball, Office Space) supplies it. Six in Season One was voiced by Gina Gershon (Showgirls, 3-Way), but Season Two will find Carmen Elektra (Baywatch) reading her. Maurice LaMarche, the veteran voice artist who supplies the voice of Gus the robot, is perhaps best known as the voices of Inspector Gadget and Yosemite Sam in recent TV work, but you've also heard him as Orson Welles in Ed Wood and as "additional voices" in dozens of animated shows like Futurama, Kim Possible and Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.

So if you ever wondered where the aura of brilliance that lay over Futurama went when that show was cancelled, the answer is "it's tripping the rift." It's a hilarous trip, folks. Don't miss the boat!

Tonight: "Nature vs. Nurture," "Aliens, Guns & a Monkey"
Tomorrow: "Emasculating Chode," "Love Conquers All... Almost," "Android Love"

Season Premiere: July 27th, 10 PM/9 Central: "You Wanna Put That Where?" followed by "Cool Whip."

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Three Approaches: Advanced Perl Programming by Simon Cozens


The second edition of Advanced Perl Programming, by Simon Cozens, is very different from the first edition, because it comes into a different world of Perl programming than the first, published in 1997, did. Cozens points out in the introduction the two reasons for this shift. The first was the development and introduction of Perl 6, which had the effect of stretching Perl 5, as thousands of Perl genies found ways to make the current version do things that were promised for Perl 6.

The second reason, though, was both more subtle and more powerful, a true paradigm shift. The focus of Perl programming had shifted "away from techniques and toward resources." Knowing where to find a tasty pearl of Perl and how to plug it into your own structure has become more important than knowing how to create it in the first place, because the resources are out there.

Camel button: Powered by Perl
     Camel = Perl

Because of the shift, Advanced Perl Programming concentrates on three crafty ways to use those resources. Cozens spells them out in Chapter 1, "Advanced Techniques":
I've said that there are no secret switches to turn on advanced features in Perl, and this means that everyone starts on a level playing field, in just the same way that Johan Sebastian Bach and a kid playing with a xylophone have precisely the same raw materials to work with... First, we'll look at introspection: programs looking at programs, figuring out how they work, and changing them... The second idea we'll look at is the class model... As this is an advanced book, we're going to learn how to subvert Perl's object-oriented model... Finally, there's the technique of what I call unexpected code—code that runs in places you might not expect it to... These three areas, together with the special case of Perl XS programming... delineate the fundamental techniques from which all advanced uses of Perl are made up.

Cozens has created a map for some fairly complex territory with these three classes of approach. The first chapter comprises a kind of legend for this map, detailing some "basic" applications of each class. For example, introspection is illustrated with glob aliasing, in which the pointer for a whole group of variables is "hijacked" (purposefully) to serve another glob. From there, he takes us swiftly through accessing glob elements ("to access the individual references, you can treat the glob itself as a very restricted hash..."), closures ("a code block that captures the environment where it's defined..."), AUTOLOAD, and "two of the most misunderstood pieces of Perl arcana," CORE and CORE::GLOBAL. By page 20, Cozens has pulled these six elements into service to show the power of introspection, and he's ready to introduce "messing with the model."

Exploration is always simpler when you have a map, but any explorer will tell you, a map is not sufficient in itself. To get the most from this book, you need to be fairly familiar with Perl, and it helps to have several other languages under your belt as well. Cozens occasionally intersperses Perl examples with code from Ruby and C, but the meat of his instruction comes in showing how even frequently-used Perl goodies have little-used "hooks" that allow them to be repurposed. So although "one of the draws of Ruby is that everything is an object," but "you can't do that in Perl, [because] 2 is not an object," by manipulating the model "we can fake it."

Once we are somewhat familiar with his three techniques, Cozens leads us further into dark territory. We look at advanced parsing techniques, for dealing with data that isn't presented in a regular, structured format. He covers both top-down and bottom-up parsing, using Perl tools that are already available from CPAN and other sources. Next, he takes us through templating tools (one of those "perfectly good wheels that every journeyman Perl programmer reinvents"), beginning with "format" and Text::Autoformat, then diving into HTML::Template (a Perl program that outputs HTML code) and HTML::Mason (HTML code that incorporates and runs snippets of Perl).

In Chapter 4, "Objects, Databases and Applications," the author addresses one of Perl's great strengths. Every advanced Perl user can appreciate the value of neat techniques for sorting and manipulating data. What Cozens has done, though, is to move beyond the ordinary here, showing us how to put existing tools and applications together in vital new ways. This is a chapter full of little "trap" icons, too—the icons indicate pitfalls of Perl programs, with valuable guidance that will help you avoid the trap.

The next chapter covers Perl's abilities to process natural languages, so the computer can "understand" them. The author uses a real-world issue—identifying spam—to illustrate how Perl can do this. Then he covers Perl and Unicode, and the Perl Object Environment, and a section on testing that advanced code you've written.

The final chapters detail how inline extensions let Perl programs run snippets of other executable code, and how you can play with with the stuff you've learned. In using inline extensions, it helps to have that other programming language under your belt—Cozens uses C, Python, Ruby and CPR. The toy-filled final chapter has poetry playthings and even golf. My favorite, though, is "bleach," a module that does nothing much—but so cleverly, it's fun to trace its activity through the code!

Advanced Perl Programming is Safari-enabled, which means its contents are searchable online, if you have a subscription. But if you're an intermediate Perl user, wanting to move up a notch, what you really want is a copy of this manual at your desk, and hours to spend working through the examples. It's definitely worth the time.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Diving into Perl-Infested Waters: Learning Perl


The Perl programming language is everywhere in the Net; people write code in Perl who've never thought of using any other tool, and programmers with C++ chops still pick Perl to write those little utilities that help them tweak their C code. If you already know how to program in another language, and want to learn Perl, this is the book to learn it from.

The basic Perl reference from O'Reilly is the "camel" book (so-called for the camel picture on its cover), so it's appropriate that Learning Perl should be the "llama" book; the llama is the New World member of the camel family, and the contents of the manual will add new members to the Perl programming family. The fourth edition adds even more footnotes and asides to the exception-rich text.*

Starting with the Introduction, which provides basic background information about Perl and its creator, Larry Wall, the manual walks programmers through the process of adding Perl to their libraries. The authors, Randall L. Schwartz, Tom Phoenix and brian d foy [sic], begin with the basics, and detail ways that Perl differs from other programming languages.

Each chapter concludes with some exercises, because you cannot learn to use a programming language without using it. I liked the estimate of time to complete an exercise, found in parentheses at the start of each one. This let me guess whether I would have time to complete it before I had to put the book down. And since the exercises are "timed" for the Unix version of Perl, and I am using the Windows version, I had a ready-made excuse for taking longer than the estimated time.

According to the authors, "Perl is a language that is easy to use, but hard to learn." This warning is supported by the careful documentation and multiple exceptions to its own internal rules. Fortunately, you don't have learn it on your own; there is a wide-spread support and development community. This "group development," led and coordinated by Perl's creator, keeps the language alive and growing in features (and shrinking in bug-count!), and it means you're not alone out there when you encounter an "undocumented feature" while programming.

And of course, there is also this carefully-designed and well-executed training manual. You start with "scalar data" (variables), and move on to "lists and arrays," "subroutines," and "input and output," before going on to more programmer-intensive topics, like "hashes," "modules," and "regular expressions".** Before you know it, you're learning to use Perl's other control structures; you're doing directory operations, you're sorting strings, and even managing processes††.

The book concludes with some advanced techniques, to help you put your new-found skills to work. Answers to exercises that left development to the reader are included in one appendix, and a list of other sources and training is in another appendix. The rich index is very helpful.

This is a book from the heady times when all it took to get a better job was to learn more. If you still live in that era, I can't recommend it strongly enough. You can learn Perl. You just need this book, and the determination to use it.

* Because Perl is a language rich in exceptions, it's a rare page of the book that doesn't have at least one footnote. The authors even "discussed doing the entire book as a footnote to save on the page-count...." Some of the foototes are jokes, and some explain the punchlines of in-jokes in the text, but most simply expand on, or detail exceptions to, the examples given in the main text.

For one thing, there are no integer operations in Perl; all computations use floating-point values. If you assign a variable an integer value, Perl uses its floating-point equivalent.

There are versions of Perl readily available for Unix, Linux, Windows, Mac, and even OS/2.

** Regular expressions are tiny programs in their own right, according to the authors. Several chapters teach this language-within-a-language, and how to use Perl's powerful support for regular expressions. (Search engines on the Web are often written in Perl because it strongly supports the "pattern matching" or "template" function of regular expressions.)

††If you're in the Unix world, you're managing processes using "fork"—but not in Windows, unless I missed something. According to the authors, Perl developers are working hard to add forking capabilities for systems "whose underlying process model is very different from Unix" to the language.

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Monday, July 18, 2005

Finding a Bad Woman: Four to Score by Janet Evanovitch


We've seen how Stephanie Plum, Janet Evanovitch's plucky bounty hunter, gets her man when there's money on the line. But in Four to Score, Plum's assignment is to bring in a woman. With so much at stake, Stephanie's going to need lots of help. Grandma Mazur discovers the power of the stun gun, Lula's got an urge to stomp someone, and Joe Morelli is right there to watch her back—and her front!

The fugitive criminal keeps leaving coded messages for her ex-boyfriend, and he's hired Stephanie to figure out what she wants. Trouble is, the codes are too complex, even for the puzzle-loving seniors in her complex. She calls in Salvatore "Sally" Sweet, a transvestite singer with a penchant for solving encrypted messages.

As if it weren't enough to have Grandma Mazur and Lula, and now Sally Sweet as well, determined to play bounty hunter on this case, Plum's sleazy cousin Vinnie has hired her nemesis, Joyce Barnhardt—not only hired her, but given Joyce the same case! Joyce seems content to follow Stephanie and her entourage, waiting for the inevitable success that she will steal, just like she stole Stephanie's husband, Dickie Orr.

Meanwhile, Stephanie keeps getting hateful messages from someone who warns her to "stay away from my boyfriend." Whoever it is means business, too—first Stephanie's car is fire-bombed, then her apartment. And when she moves in with Joe Morelli while the damage is being repaired—then the fireworks really start!

Four to Score is another solid entry in the Stephanie Plum universe. You've got to read this one, just for the laughs. And to count the cars Plum destroys on the way to solving the mystery.

I've read One for the Money, Two for the Dough and Three to Get Deadly. I've also read Seven Up—that's the book that hooked me on Stephanie Plum!

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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Degunking Your Pantry: The Working Stiff Cookbook by Bob Sloan


It's 8 PM and you just got home from work. What's for dinner?

Far from the halcyon Fifties, when a working stiff walked in the door, shouted, "Honey, I'm home!" and sat down to a meal cooked by a stay-at-home spouse, the responsibility for making evening meals has devolved upon Swanson, Dominos, and the food court at the mall. In The Working Stiff Cookbook, Bob Sloan shows us how to take back control over the family dinner.

This cookbook is like a Joy of Cooking for the new age. Like that older cookbook, this one doesn't assume that we know how to stock a pantry or select a good skillet. Instead, Sloan tells us, with several quick essays at the beginning. From the 33 items found in every well-stocked pantry, to the 11 pots and pans and four knives no kitchen should be without, he sets us straight on the basics.

Then he launches into the (mostly) simple, quick-to-prepare recipes. He focuses on main dishes, because "as a Working Stiff myself, I realize you're pushing yourself to the max just getting the entrée together." Having said that, though, he provides some staging tips for side dishes, and includes recipes for complimentary starches, vegetables and even a few desserts.

The cookbook, wire-bound underneath a strong cover, is divided into four encouragingly-titled tabbed sections: Instant, One Pot, Pasta, and Soups etc. A typical recipe page under the "Instant" tab, for example, is "Sole in Foil" for two. The three-ingredient recipe for the sole is supported by a side-bar that explains cooking in foil, a footnote that suggests variations in seasoning, and a recipe for Rice Pilaf that can be made while the sole is in the oven. The whole meal takes about 20 minutes to make, including prep time.

"One Pot" recipes can be as pedestrian as a tuna casserole, or as sophisticated as Sloan's "Paella Rapido." Despite a slightly-daunting list of ingredients (compared with "Sole in Foil," anyway), I was encouraged to try this recipe by the frequent repetition of my favorite recipe phrase: "Open a can of..." The author acknowleges in the sidebar that this will not be exactly like the classic Mediterranean dish made with just-caught fish and shrimp, but I can testify from my own trials that it comes close enough! Prep time is less than 15 minutes, but cooking time after the paella is prepared is 45 minutes.

The "Pasta" tab covers more than just the starch, of course—although I found Sloan's tips on cooking pasta very helpful. This section shows us some quick and tasty ways to use pasta as an ingredient in such one-dish meals as the vegetarian "Thai Vegetable Noodles." I liked the looks of this recipe, because it gave me a more-creative way to use the other half of a red pepper, once it's been sliced open, than for salad extras. This dish also makes a good destination for left-over broccoli, green beans and cauliflower.

The tab isn't big enough for a full title of the final section. Under "Soups etc." we find recipes for soups, salads, and sandwiches. Nothing is too simple for Sloan to include; "Grilled Cheese Sandwich" has a page, and so does "Eggs for Dinner." My favorite, though, is the "Sausage, Escarole & White Bean Soup." Since this recipe uses canned white beans, it takes very little time to make, but it tastes as if it's been simmering all day.

This isn't a large cookbook. It really doesn't need to be; its main use is to break us of the flop-into-an-armchair, dial-Dominos-for-dinner habit. Over 50 entrée recipes give plenty of options for a month's worth of meals with no repeats, even if you don't like all the menu options Sloan offers. A complete Index makes it easy to find recipes to match the contents of your refrigerator.

The cute 50s-cookbook-style illustrations by Michael Klein are great seasoning for the no-nonsense recipe writing. Sloan understands "This may not be the cookbook you curl up with at night. I don't describe the aromas emanating from rustic soup pots simmering on Tuscan farmhouse stoves." That's true—he just makes it possible for us working stiffs to smell them first-hand! The author knows that most of us are too busy to cook the way our grandmothers (or mothers) did. We don't even shop the way our forebears did, why would we prepare meals that way?

Like my other favorite cookbook, Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipes, this cookbook takes a simple approach that makes it easy to give up the bag from Burger King as your default dinner option.

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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Hunting the Candyman: Three to Get Deadly by Janet Evanovitch


Stephanie Plum is back, with a truly unpopular assignment. In Janet Evanovitch's Three to Get Deadly, she's hunting for the Burg's beloved candy vendor, the venerable "Uncle Mo." Arrested for "carrying concealed" (a law which it seems is honored more in the breach than in the observance in the Burg), Moses Bedemier has skipped bail and is now missing. And Stephanie can't get any help from his neighbors or relatives to track him down—without exception, they feel he's above reproach.

So why do people who might be involved in his disappearance begin to turn up wounded or dead? Who drives the black Jeep Cherokee and shoots up the dumpster next to Stephanie, warning her that she's the next target if she doesn't quit looking for Uncle Mo? And who blew up Ranger's car?

Never one to rest on a single case (especially a difficult one that takes a long time to solve), Plum is also hunting a deadbeat, Stuart Baggett. The slippery Baggett gets away from her twice, but eventually she takes him down—in the funniest way possible, of course. I won't spoil it, but it's guaranteed to earn Stephanie some ribbing from her friends on the force.

This novel also introduces the serial car troubles that enliven later books. Uncle Sandor's blue Buick isn't the only car Stephanie will drive—but it's the only one that seems immune from serial automotive murder! It also adds familial pressure to get married—from both families—to the casual relationship between Plum and Joe Morelli. When Joe's Aunt Bella uses her "eye" on Plum, the results are scary, in a side-splittingly funny way.

This mingling of serious crime story with hilarious side-bars, running gags, and Plum's repeated triumph despite a profound lack of bounty-hunter attitude, make this series unique in my experience. No one escapes the punchline, or Plum, not even a rapist, serial murderer, or child pornographer.

One for the Money is the first book, and Two for the Dough is the second. I've also read Seven Up—that's the book that hooked me on Stephanie Plum!

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My Dirty Dozen: 12 Guilty Pleasures on DVD

They're the movies you watch, even cut up with commercials on TBS or USA, whenever they show up in the schedule. They're the DVDs you hide in the drawer of the entertainment center, because you just don't want to explain to your dinner guests why you have a copy. (Let alone that their sprung-open plastic latches reveal that you watch them frequently.)

You know the movies I mean. Here's my top twelve, in no particular order:

1. Fast Times at Ridgement High, 1982
If you can't relate to someone in this movie, man, you're dead and buried! Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh both bare-chested (not to mention Senn Penn); Ray Walston's definitive teacher-from-hell; Judge Rheinhold as the gormless fast-food pirate drooling (and masturbating) over Cates. There's nothing here to exercise your grey cells. It's just FUN.

2. The Mask, 1994
If I only have a minute, I zip to the dance scene when Jim Carrey as "The Mask" first appears at the Coco Bongo Club. But for sheer lyric beauty, what could surpass Cameron Diaz in a wet blouse? And that dog—you've gotta love the dog! What more do you want for a lazy summer's viewing?

3. Repo Man, 1984
Emilio Estevez gets way, way "out there" in this sleazy spoof of UFO-fanaticism. While there are good performances by Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton, the movie is stolen entire by Tracey Walter as the loopy Miller, who tends his trash-can full of burning rags as he explains "reality" to Estevez.

4. Strictly Ballroom, 1993
Paul Mercurio stars in this great send-up of competitive ballroom dancing. The music is fantastic, the dancing is inspirational (in a rural contest kind of way), and the villains are so despicably petty. Predictable only if you've seen every local-dancer-makes-good movie ever made. Show me your paso doble!

5. Theatre of Blood, 1973
Grand Guignol is a genre in which gore is the point. This movie takes that fine French tradition and makes it totally English, with Vincent Price, in a ham-and-cheesy take-off of himself, murdering critics using methods gleaned from Shakespeare. Diana Rigg appears in drag—the first time I saw this movie, it was nearly over before I recognized her!

6. Earth Girls Are Easy, 1988
Olympian Geena Davis falls for a hairy alien Jeff Goldblum when his spaceship falls into her swimming pool. The music (mostly by Julie Brown) is zany, the plot is nearly non-existent, and Peter Rocket makes a great skanky boyfriend. Really, all you need to know is "Damon Wayans and Jim Carrey" and "Geena Davis in a corset and stockings." Angelyne has a cameo.

7. Dodgeball, 2004
This should have never been on my "buy" list, or even my "watch free when it comes on TV" list. But a helpful review on BlogCritics steered me right. This send-up of the "Cinderella team" formula-flick is perfect on all levels: the "heroes" are serious losers, the "villain" is played by Ben Stiller as a more-muscular version of Zoolander, and Rip Torn's coach is ten inches of icing on this fruitcake. It scarcely needs Steve the Pirate, but I maybe that's why I keep watching this film. I just love fruitcake.

8. Videodrome, 1983
This dark sci-fi thriller has hints of snuff films and sexual torture, but the real soul-shaker is the plot gimmick: What if something you watched could infect your mind, truly take over your will? James Woods stars as the hapless viewer, sucked in by the porn and infected by visions of Debbie Harry. When he reaches into his own belly and pulls out the gun, you'll squirm—but you'll be back. You've watched it once...

9. UHF, 1989
Give Wierd Al Yankovic a UHF TV station, and nothing highbrow or classy will result. Instead, Al programs loony skits like "Wheel of Fish," "Conan the Librarian," a sleaze-talk show ("Lesbian Nazi Hookers Abducted by UFOs and Forced Into Weight Loss Programs—all next week on Town Talk.") and "Raul's Wild Kingdom." (Raul: "For those of you just joining us, today we're teaching poodles how to fly.") Plus Al's great spoofs of Dire Straits' "I Want My MTV" and Sylvester Stallone in Rambo—and all of that's only about ten minutes of this movie. Really, really great in its own goofy way.

10. Underworld, 2003
Kate Beckinsale is a vampire, and they're the good guys. The villains are werewolves, but the formula is Romeo-and-Juliet gang-war noir. Unless you're from Eastern Europe, Beckinsale is the only actor you'll have heard of, and that helps. So does the staging, which will remind you of Ridley Scott. I thought this would be a cheesy blood-sucker, but to my surprise, it didn't suck at all!

11. Major League, 1989
Charlie Sheen as "Wild Thing." Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hayes, who plans to steal more bases than anyone ever did before. And Bob Eucker as the "voice" of the abysmally-bad last-place baseball team, the Indians. All you need for pure popcorn-munching pleasure is the wonderful Randy Newman title song ("Burn On, Big River") and the irreligious religious conflict between a born-again Christian and a voodoo-idol worshipper. Did I forget Randy Quaid as the rabid fan?

12. Hairspray, 1988
Back when Rikki Lake was fat... er, pleasingly plump, she made this nutty paean to the birth of the Sixties. Debbie Harry is in this one, too, but the real shock is Divine, who appears in a rare second role as a man. Pia Zadora has a neat cameo as a beatnik, and Mink Stole keeps her clothes on as the assistant producer of a "Rock Hop" TV show. The movie's segregation theme is handled lightly, with more focus on Rikki the "Hair-Hopper" and her changing 'dos. History-Lite. Very lite.

Those are my guilty pleasures. The floor is now open for your confessions—just give me a minute to make some popcorn!

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Echoes of Wall Street: Boiler Room


There is no shortage of films about the crass greed of stockbrokers and others who make their living selling. The broker is usually depicted as manipulative, dishonest and successful, or naive, ambitious and willing to sell his soul. But rarely has the tortured path of the unwilling Faust been portrayed as well as Giovanni Ribisi does in Boiler Room.
I read this article a while back, that said that Microsoft employs more millionaire secretaries than any other company in the world. They took stock options over Christmas bonuses. It was a good move. I remember there was this picture, of one of their groundskeepers next to his Ferrari. Blew my mind. You see shit like that, and it just plants seeds, makes you think it's possible, even easy. And then you turn on the TV, and there's just more of it. The 87-million-dollar lottery winner, that kid actor who just made 20 million on his last movie, that Internet stock that shot through the roof—you could have made millions if you had just gotten in early, and that's exactly what I wanted to do: get in. I didn't want to be an innovator any more, I just wanted to make the quick and easy buck, I just wanted in. The Notorious B-I-G said it best: "Either you're slingin' crack-rock, or you've got a wicked jump-shot." Nobody wants to work for it anymore. There's no honor in taking that after-school job at Mickey Dee's, honor's in the dollar, kid. So I went the white-boy way of slinging crack-rock; I became a stock broker.

Director/writer Ben Younger set out to answer the questions the movie's tag line poses, "Where would you turn? How far would you go? How hard will you fall?" He introduces Seth Davis (Ribisi) as a sharp, smart, entreprenurial type desperate to win the approval of his hard-nosed father, a federal judge (sternly played by Ron Rifkin). Judge Davis is furious with Seth, not for dropping out of college, but for lying to his family about it for six months. He confronts Seth at a rare appearance at the family table, angry that his son is running an illegal casino.

This tug-of-war between father and son is the pivot upon which the story turns. When Seth is offered a chance to become a stock-broker, he accepts. He even closes his casino, despite the fact that he has turned the actual work of running it over to someone else. His pride in his new job leads him to announce it, through the intermediary services of his mother, to his father.

But before he can relax on his success in this lucrative new employment, Seth begins to feel tiny ethical tremors. He reads a stack of IPO prospectuses, and notices that they "all have the same names" associated with the investment. He comes back to the boiler-room sales floor late at night, and spots the SEC watch-dog carefully shredding page after page of documents. He notices the firm's CEO, Michael Brantley (Tom Everett Scott, who played the drummer in That Thing You Do—ironically, replacing Ribisi in the band), walking into an abandoned building across from the firm's parking lot. When he follows, he learns that his company is ready, phones, facilities and people, to move to another location at a moment's notice, "if things get too hot."

We can see that this inner conflict is ripping Seth apart. Unlike other brokers at his company, who seem content to acquire bling or blow, Seth's drive is for approval. He befriends the company's receptionist, not realizing that she is cooperating with the FBI in their investigation of the firm. He molds himself after another senior broker, Chris Varick (Vin Diesel) in an attempt to get recognition from his own team leader, Greg Weinstein (Nicky Katt). But the tiny tremors are growing in strength, especially after Seth discovers that the latest "hot IPO offer" is for stock in a company that doesn't exist.

The quake that brings down Seth's world wraps the young man, his father, and the bilked public (represented by a single investor client of Seth's) in the full force of an FBI sting. Even though we know, from the initial scenes of the movie which show the triumphant Brantley rewarding Chris Varick for "getting the firm through the late unpleasantness," that the truly guilty will not be punished, the film still has the power to hold us in its thrilling grip.

Boiler Room is aware of its progenitors; allusions to Wall Street and Glengarry/Glen Ross abound. In one scene, in fact, the newly-hired trainees are invited to a party at Weinstein's empty mansion. Seth arrives to find the senior brokers clustered around a hugh wide-screen TV showing scenes from Wall Street, with brokers reciting whole chunks of the dialog, word-for-word. (Weinstein, appropriately, chooses the Mike Douglas/Gordon Gekko character to emulate; Chris Varick voices Charlie Sheen/Bud Fox.) The theme of Glengarry/Glen Ross, in which the salesmen themselves are cheated by their firm, is reduced to a mere suggestion here, but it's delivered in the line, "Remember Glengarry/Glen Ross? This [stock] is 'Glen Ross'."

Ben Affleck gets to solidify the image of the sales-weasel. As chief broker and sales director Jim Young, he tells the newly-hired trainees, "...there is no such thing as a no-sale call. A sale is made on every call you make. Either you sell the client some stock or he sells you a reason he can't. Either way, a sale is made, the only question is—who is gonna close? You or him? Now be relentless..." And, "There's an important phrase that we use here, and I think it's time that you all learned it. 'Act. As. If.' You understand what that means? Act as if you are the fucking President of this firm. Act as if you got a nine-inch cock. Okay? Act as if."

It is only when Seth finally learns to stop selling himself the lie and act as if ethics matter more than accolades, that he earns the approval he craves. Despite the weasels' escape, this makes for a thoroughly satisfying finale.

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Friday, July 15, 2005

Weekly BlogScan: Potter and Anti-Potter

Midnight is the witching hour. But midnight on July 16th is the wizarding hour, when the next Harry Potter novel is officially released amidst magic and media fury. So is this a literary event? A celebrity circus? A serious landmark in the chronicles of 2005? For answer, I turned to the blogosphere, to see what's the buzz on the boy wizard.

This is truly a world-wide phenomenon, folks. There are Harry Potter blogs in Spanish, German, and French, of course—but bloggers also focus on the young wizard from Thailand and in Persian.

J.K. Rowling, the series' author, is the world's only billionaire author, and the second-richest woman in Britain (after the Queen), according to the Mirror online. The linked story looks at several other celebrities who've grown from the Potter phenomenon, Daniel Radcliff, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint; and it tracks the actors' growth as the movie versions of Harry Potter novels progress.

Diana Sprinkles uses Harry and his friends as inspiration for her original art. Her images are sometimes reminiscent of animé, sometimes of old drawings in Edgar Rice Burroughs' paperbacks. (You'll know I have permission to use an image from her catalog if it appears in this post.) And dua also borrows creative power to breathe life into Rowling's wand-vendor, Ollivander, with an original story at her Lumos blog.

Ron and Hermoine seem to be linked more and more strongly as the books progress, so it's no surprise there is a blog devoted to them as a couple. These bloggers seem to have Emma confused with her movie role as Hermoine, and likewise with Rupert Grint and Ron.

The Magical Three website concentrates on Emma and Rupert as well. A trademarked image shows Emma sporting braces, which leads one blogger to gasp, "Is Hermoine changing her looks?"

To read Hermoine Grainger's dairy, check out The Firebolt, a realistic (if rather breathless) journal with pictures gleaned mostly from the first movie. The blogger does a good job of reproducing the slightly-snotty tone of Hermoine's approach to life.

"Draco Malfoy" also keeps a blog (at a page called potterstinks, naturally), in which he muses about Malfoy Manor, his sisters and his future. For Harry Potter fans, there's not much here, and for their parents, the site uses language J.K. Rowling wouldn't allow to foul her pen—although it seems natural enough from such a nasty wizard as Draco. Don't miss the Comment threads, where Harry and Draco's mother both put in an appearance.

Speaking of people who hate Potter, there is a world-wide anti-Potter mirror to Pottermania. One group names itself TOOPAP, The Organization of People Against Potter. The emotion here is so total, it appears to have overwhelmed the blogger, who can only say "This page is temporarily down due to how much Harry Potter sucks. Please check back in a few days and it will most likely be back up again." In German, the Anti-Potter Clan hosts modified versions of the German book covers, one of which (Harry Potter und der Feuerkelch (Goblet of Fire)) shows Harry's hair on fire.

There's even an Anti-Potter Yahoo Group!

Some bloggers inveigh against all things Potter for religious reasons. Geocities blogger godluvsusoshea is a typical example:
But there are things people just don't know about Harry Potter. Starting with magic and magic is wrong. So is sorcery and people who do sorcery. Wizards and Witches are bad too. They cast spells and think the power and magic they use is their own. Wrong. There is only two people who can give out power. God is one of them. And since God hates sorcery, he isn't giving it out. The other person giving it out is the devil. Yes, he can do that too.

Despite all this anti-potter activity, Los Angeles Times op-ed writer Joel Stein reaped the whirl-wind when he criticized Rowling's readers as "stupid, stupid, stupid" and worried that "a culture that simplifies its entertainment down to fairy tales is doomed to simplify the world down to good and evil." Blogger Orac responded in kind from Respectful Insolence, with "Joel Stein is a moron." Orac takes issue with Stein's opinion directly:
the very statement shows the utter depths of his idiocy and vacuousness, particularly since he dismisses the first Harry Potter in essence only because it was intended as a children's book and in spite of his recognition that it is "witty, imaginative, and fast-paced"!... There may be many reasons to disparage the Baby Boom generation (and they've probably all been used at one time or another), but the popularity of the Harry Potter books is not among them.

Safely back amongst Pottermaniacs, there's a Myers-Briggs-based Harry Potter Personality Quiz at Pirate Monkey that's fun to do. DrPat's results:
Pirate Monkey's Harry Potter Personality Quiz

For LiveJournal bloggers, there's a Meme Quiz that lets you define yourself as a witch or wizard in the Potterverse, and a rich source of character pictures for you to use, whether or not you pick Harry as your non de plume. That last link also will lead you to wallpaper and AIM icons with a Potter theme.

But what about Harry Potter himself? It seems no one wants He Who Must Not Be Named after them via the Internet—despite tons of blogs about the young wizard, I found none purporting to be written by Harry Potter. Perhaps that's okay—something is sacred after all. Even if the Pope would not agree.

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Linux in 60 Seconds: Test Driving Linux by David Brickner


"From Windows to Linux in 60 seconds" is the promise on the cover of Test Driving Linux by David Brickner, and it certainly keeps its promise. I popped the included Move CD into the drive, re-booted my computer, and in less than a minute, I was looking at a Linux KDE desktop.

Much like Knoppix and other Linux Live CDs, the Move CD lets you boot into Linux (actually Mandrakesoft's Mandrakelinux 10.0) without disturbing the Windows-formatted contents of your hard drive. This benefit makes it possible to "test-drive" in the store a system configured for Windows, to see if it will work with Linux instead. The boot process actually looks for device drivers for your monitor, keyboard and mouse, printer, and so on, and then incorporates them into the Linux configuration. Network system settings are also moved, more-or-less seamlessly, into the Linux arena. With a memory key inserted, the configuration file is stored, and you skip over this process in subsequent boots from the CD.

Because the operating system is stored on a CD, your computer will run slower than you are used to—and the slower your CD-ROM drive, the more your patience will be tried. After using it satisfactorily on my main computer and two brand-new ones at Computer City, I even tried it on a creaky old PC with eight years under its AMD-chip belt—it worked, but I had time to make a sandwich in between window refreshes.

The CD doesn't just give you a peek at the world of Linux. It provides a full operating system, plus working versions of popular Linux-style open-source software. The "Kool Desktop Environment" (KDE) interface spawned a whole host of other K-initialed programs: Konqueror (Web browser and file manager), Kontact (eMail manager), Kmail (the eMail component of Kontact—think Outlook Express), and the Kicker panel (sort of like the Windows taskbar). These are included on the Move CD, and the reader can walk through using them with the careful instructions in Test Driving Linux.

I had to try Konqueror on the Web first. The appearance of BlogCritics from this browser is interestingly different from my Firefox view; fonts are lighter in weight, and I miss the status bar at the bottom of the browser window. While I'm sure there is such a feature in Konqueror, I could not figure out how to turn it on during my exploration. Moving from page to page was slower, most likely due to the CD-based OS, and some of the MT buttons were missing from the editing interface. Since I've seen the same missing buttons when using Firefox, this may not be a Linux- or Konqueror-specific issue.

An open-source office suite is also provided, including Writer, Calc, Impress and Draw, as well as a mathematical-formula generator called Math. I had already downloaded these prior to my test-drive, so I was able to use Writer from my hard drive. Like many open-source programs, they are designed to run under Linux as well as (sometimes, better than) under Windows.

There's a photo program, GIMP, and an accounting program, GnuCash on the CD. Gimp is midway in features between Windows Paint and Adobe Photoshop, but to get the full feature set, you need to download a later version from the Web. There are also Mac or Windows versions to try out, all located at The manual instructions apply to the older version found on the CD.

I dabbled in GnuCash a bit, but since I didn't have the USB key in during that session, I lost all my setup upon exiting. The taste was sufficient to assure me that this Linux-friendly program would do everything I get Quicken to do. It even imports Quicken QIF files.

Two chapters also cover the Games and Music/Video capabilities of your system under Linux. Several MP3 or XXML players (amaroK and Totem, for example) are covered. I was intrigued by the open-source take on compression of sound files.
There are several problems with MP3 files. First of all, their compression algorithms are no longer the best available... Also, the MP3 compression algorithm must be licensed if you want to create a legal encoding program that uses the MP3 format. To remedy these problems, the open source community has created its own audio format known as Ogg Vorbis... You can test the sound difference for yourself by visiting [the Ogg Vorbis page at].

The real fun, for me at least, was the opportunity to play with the command-line interface (CLI)—named Konsole, of course. Linux preserves much of the Unix flavor its name reflects, and the fact that you're not running Windows lets you fiddle with files that are locked while the Windows OS is running. (Needless to say, this is not for the faint of heart, nor is it recommended for the beginner.) The manual really comes into its own here, showing the test-driver how to halt runaway process and loops, and generally recognise what's going on under the hood.

One nice advance over the older SUN Unix I was used to is the addition of tabs to the Konsole CLI. Like tabs in your Firefox, Mozilla or Konqueror browser, CLI tabs let you easily separate different tasks, isolating them in their own tabs without needing to open a new window process.

Despite the speed issues, I came away from my test-drive ready to sign the contract for this shiny new vehicle. And that's the beauty of the Move CD and the Test Driving Linux manual. Once you've tried it out, you're ready for the highway.

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